publication August 10, 2018

Wastewater? Shifting Paradigms in Latin America and the Caribbean: from Waste to Resource


Download the full infographic: in English | in Spanish  



The Challenge in Wastewater Management

Historically, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have prioritized investments in water supply, achieving good coverage in the past years. However, there is much work yet to be done to improve sanitation services. Despite the region’s income and urbanization levels, only 60% of the region’s population is connected to a sewage system, and less than 40% of the region’s wastewater is treated - with significant implications for public health and the environment. The newly endorsed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are adding a new dimension to the challenges in the sector by incorporating sustainability, which includes improving water quality, implementing integrated water resources management, water use efficiency across sectors, reducing the number of people suffering from water scarcity, and restoring water-related ecosystems. The ability to significantly increase the levels of wastewater treatment becomes necessary if the region is to achieve the SDGs, and should be a priority for the governments in the region. 

To improve the situation, countries in the LAC region are embarking on massive programs to collect and treat wastewater. The investment requirements to achieve this are enormous. The Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) estimated that over the period 2010-2030, US$80 billion should be spent on sewerage infrastructure and US$33 billion on wastewater treatment. However, efficiently investing in wastewater and other sanitation infrastructure to achieve public health benefits, environmental objectives, and to enhance the quality of urban life is a major challenge for the region as highlighted in a recent report prepared by the World Bank on infrastructure in Latin America which states that ‘the dismal wastewater performance is a real emergency, and one that epitomizes the potential for spending better’. Improved wastewater management offers a double value proposition if, in addition to the environmental and health benefits of wastewater treatment, financial returns are also possible that cover partially or all operation and maintenance costs. Resource recovery from these facilities in the form of energy, nutrients, reusable water, and biosolids represent an economic and financial benefit that contributes to the sustainability of these systems and the water utilities operating them. There is a need for an environment that fosters those type of business models and that enables private investment in infrastructure in tandem with improved efficiency of public financing to promote sustainable service delivery, especially in the poorest countries.


Wastewater: From Waste to Resource -- A Regional Initiative to Shift Paradigms

An important paradigm shift is necessary at multiple levels to advance sustainable sanitation services towards a circular economy in which wastewater is considered a valuable resource rather than a liability. To rise to this wastewater challenge in the region, the World Bank, together with CAF and other partners, is embarking on a new initiative “Wastewater: from waste to resource”.  The initiative will explore and analyze wastewater issues to provide guidance on improving the planning, management, and financing of wastewater treatment and resource recovery.  The initiative aims to promote the measures needed to make the shift a reality, including adequate legislation, innovative financing, inter-sectoral regulations and policies and integrated basin planning. Importantly, this initiative emphasizes the following actions to enable this critical paradigm shift:

At the regional or country level:

At the project level:

  • Moving from ad-hoc and isolated wastewater solutions, such as one treatment plant per municipality, to integrated river basin planning approaches that incorporate climate variables and yield sustainable and resilient systems.
  • Moving from stringent imported environmental standards to locally contextualized regulations and legislation that are based on river basin analysis and promote resource recovery.
  • Changing from stable and rigid assumptions related to wastewater treatment planning to instead consider potential future environmental and systemic changes, while also allowing for incremental growth of wastewater treatment facilities.


  • Changing the region's perspective of "wastewater treatment plants" to "water resource recovery facilities", recognizing the inherit value of water to be treated.
  • Moving from traditional to innovative financing and business models that consider the long-term operation and management of assets, in addition to taking advantage of the potential for resource recovery in wastewater treatment plants.


As part of the initiative, several case studies have been developed, highlighting innovative approaches on wastewater planning, management and financing. The case studies mainly focus on innovative designs that promote resource recovery such as wastewater reuse or energy production and that enhance the financial and environmental sustainability of wastewater treatment plants. A final report summarizing all the findings of the initiative will be published so countries in the region and around the world can learn from best practices in the sector and can promote this paradigm shift towards a circular economy, promoting resource recovery and ensuring sustainable wastewater management.

●        See Blog: Wastewater treatment: A critical component of a circular economy (Spanish version here)

●        “Wastewater: from waste to resource”. Download the one pager of the initiative

The initiative has also been presented at several international conferences, raising awareness of the issue, and promoting a dialogue between government, international organizations and the private sector. For example, to kick start the initiative, an event was co-organized jointly with the CAF at the World Water Forum (WWF) 2018 in Brasilia “Planning and Financing Wastewater Treatment Under A Circular Economy. Perspective for Achieving the SDGs in LAC”. Panelists included ministers and deputy ministers from several countries in the region and representatives of the private sector. In Peru, a conference was also coordinated with the government to assess the challenges and the oportuniteis for resource recovery and wastewater reuse in the country.


Materials Developed by “Wastewater: From Waste To Resource” Initiative

●        7 Case Studies

San Luis Potosí, Mexico  : Integrated Wastewater Management Plan and Water Reuse

Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia: Covered Anaerobic Ponds and Their Potential for Energy Generation in Wastewater Treatment Plants

PRODES, Brazil: Output-based financing in Brazil to increase wastewater coverage and improve water quality

Atotonilco de Tula, Mexico: Reuse of Treated Wastewater for Agriculture, Energy Generation, and Transfer of Value to Stakeholders

New Cairo, Egypt: Successful PPP to Increase Wastewater Coverage and Foster Wastewater Reuse

Durban, South Africa: Wastewater Reuse for Industrial Purposes

Ridgewood, NJ, USA: Achieving Energy Neutrality in Wastewater Treatment Plants

●        One pager of the initiative

●        Preliminary Report: “WASTEWATER? Shifting Paradigms: From Waste to Resource Preliminary insights for the World Water Forum 2018”.

●        Infographic: Wastewater: from waste to resource ( EN and SPA )

●        Blogs:

●       Previous materials on wastewater planning and management:

●      Article "Consideraciones sectoriales para el tratamiento sustentable de aguas residuales" (Sectoral Considerations for the sustainable treatment of wastewater) published in the Magazine "Water and Sanitation" of ANEAS Mexico
●      Events:  "Wastewater: from waste to resource - Workshop", Buenos Aires, Argentina. Nov 14-16, 2018. Download Agenda and Presentations (PPTs) here (in Spanish).  




Last Updated: Dec 28, 2018

This initiative “Wastewater: from Waste to Resource” is supported by the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership (GWSP) and the Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF).